May 10: The Squabbling Ethan Allen & Benedict Arnold Capture Fort Ticonderoga

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Today in 1775, two feuding Connecticut-born patriots — Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold — forced the surrender of British-held Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York. It was one of the most significant strategic victories in the early years of the American Revolution. The fort’s capture was both marked and marred, however, by a heated, lasting argument between Allen and Arnold over who should, and later did, command the attack.

Fort Ticonderoga was built by the French as Fort Carillon in 1755 at a critical location between New York’s Hudson River Valley and the Canadian border. During the French and Indian War, the French and British fiercely battled over the fort, which controlled access to strategic waterways and trade routes.

However, after the Treaty of Paris in 1763 led to the complete withdrawal of French forces from North America, the British Army focused its efforts elsewhere. Since the renamed Fort Ticonderoga was not believed to be a vulnerable target, it was left undermanned, with fewer than 50 British troops there in May 1775. The soldiers and officers garrisoned at Fort Ticonderoga never dreamed they would be on the receiving end of an organized military attack, even after tensions erupted into gunfire between American colonists and British troops at Lexington and Concord.

In the early morning hours of May 10, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold — unable to agree on who should actually command the attack — jointly stormed the fort with a small force of 80 to 90 men, mostly volunteers from Vermont and Connecticut. The fort was reportedly guarded by a single sentry. The British commander, taken by surprise and clearly outnumbered, surrendered the fort to Allen without a single shot being fired. There was still plenty of commotion, however — not between the British and American forces, but between Arnold and Allen, whose headstrong personalities and competing claims of seniority clashed from the moment they decided to undertake the joint operation. After the fort’s capture, each scrambled to claim credit for the success. Allen’s account — which barely mentioned Arnold at all — was more widely circulated, and to this day, the famous Vermonter is the man mostly closely associated with the American takeover of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775.

A heavily dramatized depiction of Ethan Allen demanding the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga, circa 1875.

The takeover of “Fort Ti” was, by all accounts, a small and simple operation, but one that proved highly advantageous for the American rebels in the long term. With Ticonderoga in the hands of American forces, communication between British troops in Canada and New York were instantly severed. The fort provided a crucial staging ground for the attempted American invasion of Canada later in 1775. During the winter of 1775-1776, Henry Knox executed an audacious plan to transport over 60 tons of cannon and supplies from the fort to the munitions-starved Continental Army in eastern Massachusetts. This was a decisive factor in forcing the British to evacuate Boston. The British eventually recaptured the fort in July 1777, but not before the Americans had used it to bolster their offensive campaign against the British army in the early years of the Revolutionary War.

Further Reading

Drew Middleton, “Capture of Ticonderoga Led to Saratoga Victory,New York Times

The Capture of Fort Ticonderoga,” history.com

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